By COLIN A. YOUNG Day Staff Writer
Waterford - Formerly a staple of the southeastern Connecticut seafood harvest, Niantic River scallops are now increasingly rare, even in the waters that once bore them in bounty. The diminished population of the mollusks led the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission Thursday night to decide to not sell permits or open this year's scallop season.
The commission, which is made up of Waterford, East Lyme and Niantic residents, came to the decision "reluctantly," commission member Eric N. Kanter said.
"Due to the short life cycle of bay scallops, natural factors, and possibly the heavy rainfall at the beginning of the summer, the population is just not there," Kanter said in an email. "The wardens and commissioners searched diligently for scallops but found only a few."
Peter D. Harris, commission chairman, said the commission did not want to open the season and accept payment from fishermen for permits, only to have the population of scallops be a disappointment.
"If we sell permits, we want them to be able to go out and harvest scallops," Harris said. "We think it would be inappropriate to sell permits when we know the scallop stock is limited."
Two years ago, the commission sold permits and allowed scallop harvesting in the Niantic River for the first time in about a decade, Harris said. Last year was a particularly successful season, spurring a renewed interest in non-commercial scallop fishing."There was a lot of enthusiasm and people were all excited for this year," Harris said. "It's unfortunate. When we went out in August and September and didn't see many scallops, it was a big disappointment."
Jon Hillyer, the third-generation owner of Hillyer's Tackle Shop in Mago Point, said he's been fielding calls from fishermen who hoped the scallop season would open soon.
"The phone has been ringing quite a bit with people inquiring about permits," Hillyer, himself a scallop fisherman, said. "A lot of people heard about how good it was last year and they wanted to get back into it and jump on the bandwagon."
Hillyer said his business saw a boost in sales from scallop fishermen buying nets, spotters and long gloves last year.
"We've been without (a scallop season) for so long that to have a year like last year was unexpected," Hillyer said. "They're very fragile. Everything needs to be just right and there's a lot that comes into play."
One theory on the declining population, Harris said, suggests that scallops are susceptible to fluctuations in salinity caused by an influx of fresh water. "We had many heavy rainfalls that pushed a lot of fresh water into the river, so that may have caused the scallop population to decline," he said. "Scallops are somewhat mobile, so they could have left the river and gone out into the bay where the salinity is more stable."
Niantic River scallops were once plentiful and were a delicacy popular on restaurant menus as far away as California, Hillyer said. "I've lived on the river for 52 years, and back in the day, when we first moved here in the '60s, the scallops were plentiful," commission member Fred Grimsey said. "It was amazing; you'd go out and in a couple of hours you'd get your quota."
Hillyer said that, for him and many others, scallop fishing was a family activity in the 1960s and '70s. That tradition, he said, helped spark the scallop fishing resurgence of the past two seasons.
"It seems to be deep-set in people," he said. "I think it means a lot to a lot of people to be able to go."
Despite the setback of a canceled season and the uncertainty about what has caused the diminished population, Harris said the commission will continue to stock the river with seed scallops, as it does each year, in hopes of seeing the popular mollusk bounce back.
"We have always wanted to return to the famous years where there were so many scallops out there, but I think there are a lot of factors that have to come into play," Harris said. "We were very eager to try and have another successful season, but unfortunately that's not the case."